Jet Set Willy, Trading Classiness for Freedom on Spectrum

The sequel to Manic Miner was quite a sophisticated game, but only in terms of its structure.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

After Pitfall! protagonist Pitfall Harry mastered the ins and outs of his first journey and became tremendously wealthy from all that gold he gathered from across the jungle, he went on to have an even grander adventure with his niece Rhonda and her pet wildcat Quickclaw in tow. In other words, Pitfall Harry sold out and went family-friendly in pursuit of even greater wealth and fame.

Over in the UK, however, Harry's equivalent was an adventurer by the name of Miner Willy, whose first outing -- Manic Miner for the Sinclair Spectrum microcomputer -- proved to be a Pitfall!-sized hit within that market. Like Harry, Willy became fabulously rich from his debut adventure. But rather than going all Disney on his fans, Willy's second adventure saw him wallowing in the depths of new-money decadence. Rather than set out to be a role model for his younger relatives, Willy appeared on his sequel's box art hunkered over a toilet, clearly emptying the contents of his stomach into the porcelain bowl even as he clutched a bottle of champagne. His sprite may have traded in a hardhat for a porkpie, but Willy remained anything but upper crust.

Jet Set Willy launched a remarkable number of sequels -- enough to make the sequelization of the Mega Man series feel practically restrained by comparison.

I know, America, I know. You hear "Great Britain" and think of posh things like elaborate royal weddings, Downton Abbey, and time-travelers wearing funny bow ties. But it turns out that technicolor yawns following a night of hard partying are an integral part of English life as well, and Jet Set Willy gleefully embraces its protagonist's blue-collar nature (the guy was a miner, after all) by giving what is probably a pretty realistic take on how a workaday joe who stumbled into unbelievable wealth would follow things up: By buying a home too large for himself, wrecking it with extravagant parties, and finding himself hungover the next day. Think Jesse Pinkman minus the existential despair.

Jet Set Willy saw the hapless ex-miner forced to shuffle through his enormous new home cleaning up after his friends' excesses of the previous night. You'd think that might be his housekeeper's job, but she's actually the one who instigates the whole adventure, refusing to let Willy retire to his bedroom until he's tidied up after himself. Lord Grantham would never accept such demands, but, well, that's the nouveau-riche for you. Spineless.

Complicating matters was the fact that Willy evidently purchased his new home sight unseen, and it contained countless rooms he'd never visited -- all of which, for some reason, were horrifyingly haunted by all manner of bizarre apparitions. These included gigantic demon faces, chainsaws buzzing along through the floorboards, outsized spiders, and more. And in that regard, at least, Willy didn't differ too much from his classier Yankee counterpart Harry: One hit from any of these creatures and he was a goner.

The game's ports to more visually capable platforms helped make all those surreal enemies a little more coherent-looking, but they didn't tone down the punch-you-in-the-face difficulty level in the least.

Unlike the methodical Pitfall series, however, Jet Set Willy was fast-paced, relentless, and distressing. Everything moved at an insane clip, and each screen of the mansion packed an enormous amount of content -- countless platforms and other climbable bits of scenery, and sometimes more than half a dozen creatures zipping along their own predetermined paths. It was fiendishly difficult.

Admittedly, it came about some of that difficulty in a less-than-sporting fashion. Even discounting the game-breaking bugs with which the adventure originally shipped (corrected via code updates distributed by the creators -- perhaps the industry's first example of "we'll fix it in the patch"), Jet Set Willy had a tendency to play unfair. The hero could shuffle between rooms from practically any point at the edge of a screen, often including the top and bottom edges, and it was all too easy to make a transition into another room in a fatal position (due to monsters, pits, or other hazards) and quickly burn through your stock of lives. There was a lot of guesswork involved in mastering the game, which wasn't really helped by untelegraphed death traps like the arrows that flew in from off-screen while exploring the roof.

On the other hand, it's hard to be too critical of the game considering just how preposterously ambitious it was. Though considerably smaller in terms of actual real estate than Pitfall II, Jet Set Willy was far more elaborate -- not to mention varied. Despite beginning life on the ZX Spectrum, a system with severely limited graphical capabilities, Jet Set Willy managed to present players with a fanciful but actually somewhat sensibly laid out mansion, with logical relative placement for its rooms. High above Willy's bedroom was the attic, above which you could scamper across the roof; to the east was a garden dominated by an enormous tree, while the western side of the mansion featured a dock complete with a small explorable yacht. Despite the abstraction imposed by the Spectrum's rudimentary visuals, Willy's home managed to be quite evocative.

It helped that each locale in the building was labeled; each screen of the adventure included its own name. Some of these simply explained where you were ("The Forgotten Abbey"), while others were simply meant to be amusing ("Dr Jones will never believe this," where the scenery roughly resembled a giant pink snake). And then you had more enigmatic locales, like the "Nightmare Room" in which Willy inexplicably transformed into a strange winged rat while being haunted by clones of his maid.

Many elements of Jet Set Willy would resurface in many other games throughout the years -- for instance, the Castlevania series' commitment to creating somewhat logical architectural connections within its settings -- but the game was much more directly influential than that. Microcomputer-based platformer action games for years to come used Jet Set Willy as their template, sending players running through non-linear deathtraps and not always being particularly fair about it. But try as they might, few could top the original.... if for no other reason than the fact that the game's ending brought that crass box art to life, with Willy dashing urgently from his bedroom to the nearest toilet. Victory comes in many forms, it seems.

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for sean697 #1 sean697 4 years ago
    Thanks for the article. As a US gamer with little to no exposure to the ZX spectrum, I had heard this game mentioned before. But this is the first I've ever heard of the plot of the game and the reason for its name. From an American perspective it really is an odd name for a game. But mechanically is sounds like something I could have enjoyed in the early days of console gaming pre Mario.
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  • Avatar for ob1 #2 ob1 4 years ago
    My first - ever - video game ! Thank you so much Jeremy !
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  • Avatar for metalangel #3 metalangel 4 years ago
    "You hear "Great Britain" and think of posh things like elaborate royal weddings, Downton Abbey, and time-travelers wearing funny bow ties. But it turns out that technicolor yawns following a night of hard partying are an integral part of English life as well"

    Did we really need this paragraph?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #4 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @metalangel Are you offended when people take the wind out of stereotypes?
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  • Avatar for metalangel #5 metalangel 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I would argue that by mentioning them, you're perpetuating them, especially in this context where there was no justifiable reason to bring them up. Okay, this is one of the most beloved games among British gamers of that generation. That's all that needed to be said, let's hear more anecdotes about the Speccy itself and just how influential it was on games today as opposed to trying to trying to beat a laugh out of fossilised horse.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #6 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @metalangel I was making light of the one-dimensional perspective most Americans have on the British. Apologies if that offended you.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #7 metalangel 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I'm not offended - it just struck me as completely out of place (and too much booze is hardly a revelation given binge-happy Britons) considering you have an excellent opportunity here to introduce the Spectrum and its games to a readership that largely won't have heard of them. I first encountered stuff like Elite because I read about them in a British games magazine.

    I think wanting to kill the maid is up there with wanting to shoot the Duck Hunt dog.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @metalangel Yeeeeah... explaining the Spectrum would have been well beyond the scope of an introductory paragraph. It also wouldn't have particularly supported the overall thrust of the piece, which involved JSW's earthy humor.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #9 metalangel 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish That kind of leads me back around to the needless paragraph that got me started, but I digress. My view is that a lot of important game concepts developed in the isolation of many different regions pre-internet - and I'd be tempted to say pre-millennium, as console region locking and lack of translations for European stuff prevented a lot of things from making much impact outside their home area. The football management craze in the UK would be extremely difficult to explain outside of Europe, for example, while Japanese quirky titles would get a 'look how weird this is!' sidebar in magazines and that was usually all that Western gamers would see of them.

    I'm sure I saw an article elsewhere (possible on Eurogamer) a few years ago cheering on the working class heroes of British gaming and how they were a product of their era, equally fascinating stuff to this piece on one such hero who we got to see reap the rewards of all that treasure.
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